Thursday, July 05, 2012

Simple Gifts: The Banjo by Zach Hudson

The worst day of school was the day the other kids got their new instrument for orchestra.

"May I sign up for orchestra?" Peter asked his mother that night.

"Do you know how expensive instruments are? said his mother.

"It's hard to learn the violin," said Peter's father. "You'd have to practice every night. You probably would get sick of it."

Peter didn't think he would

And Peter can't stop thinking about playing in the school orchestra. He even asks to sit in with the orchestra until he gets a violin, but his teacher firmly tells him, no instrument, no orchestra class. Peter doodles violins in the margins of his math worksheets. He even asks if he can play the vocal music teacher's piano, but Mr. Hull only suggests that Peter ask his mom for piano lessons.

Then one day, as he slowly walks home from school, Peter spots a beat-up stringed instrument in a jumble of yard-sale items.

"Is that a banjo?" Peter asks the man seated in a folding chair nearby.

"May I play it?"

"Why not?" said the man

Peter sits down on the grass and tries to find a way to make the out-of-tune instrument sound better. As he works at it, he feels big raindrops suddenly begin to come down. Seeing the man scrambling to carry his merchandise onto the porch out of the rain, Peter pitches in to help.

"Why don't you take that banjo home with you," says the man.

Peter runs for home clutching his new instrument. His parents are not so happy with his prize. His dad gruffly reminds him that banjos are probably hard to play, but to the surprise of his parents, he doggedly works at figuring out how to get a tune out of it.

At last Peter picks out the notes to a song his class has been singing at school.

"''Tis a gift to be simple,tis a gift to be free,
''Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be..."

At Christmas time, Peter works out how to play "Jingle Bells," and feeling proud, he again approaches the orchestra teacher to see if he can play in the winter concert.

"That was very good, Peter," said Mr. Hull, "but really--you can't play a banjo in an orchestra. It doesn't fit."

Downhearted, Peter takes his tears outside, and as he sits dejectedly with his banjo on his lap, he hears heavy footsteps approaching.

It is Ms. Blaine, the principal, who seems very, very old, and who never, ever smiles. Now, Peter thinks, he is really in trouble.

"My grandfather used to play the banjo," said Mrs. Blaine, sitting down quietly beside Peter on the grass. "Play me something."

And as Peter begins the notes to the familiar Shaker song "Simple Gifts," Mrs. Blaine begins to sing along softly.

"...And when we find ourselves in a place just right,
"'Twill be in the valley of love and delight

And a place just right it is for Peter, who gets his violin, a gift from Mrs. Blaine, her son's own outgrown student instrument, given in memory of her banjo-playing grandfather. The love of music is passed down gently, with love, in Zach Hudson's simple tale of music found in The Banjo (Five String Press, 2012). With an appended CD of traditional banjo tunes (including "Simple Gifts") and illustrated by Jere Hudson in spare but evocative black-line drawings, this is a story, well told, of simple gifts that make all the difference.

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